The Significance of the Temptations of Christ

Rev. Randall Klynsma

If we were asked about the temptations of Christ, many of us could probably list the three and with a little effort find where they’re recorded in the Gospels. They are found in Matthew 4 and Luke 4, and then briefly mentioned in Mark 1:13. Interestingly, and for no obvious reason, there is a change in their order between the accounts of Matthew and Luke. This shows us that the three temptations are not necessarily in chronological order, but are listed to show us how Christ endured and triumphed through them.

The temptations of Christ were historic events set in the context of redemptive history. In addition to fulfilling hundreds of prophecies, Jesus’ life and ministry fulfills numerous foreshadowings and types found in the Old Testament. Heidelberg Catechism Q19 pulls all of these together: “From where do you know this [that our Lord Jesus Christ is our Mediator]? From the Holy Gospel, which God Himself first revealed in Paradise, afterwards proclaimed by the holy patriarchs and prophets, and foreshadowed by the sacrifices and other ceremonies of the law, and finally fulfilled by His well-beloved Son.”

Not only is Jesus the seed of the woman who will crush the Serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15) and the seed of Abraham though whom all the families of the earth will be blessed (Gen. 12:3), but He is also the new Israel of God. Through our consideration of the temptations of Christ, we will see that He is God’s chosen One who endures every trial and overcomes each temptation. On account of His work, we as God’s people find our acceptance and peace with God.

The illustrations of Jesus fulfilling the required obedience where Israel fell short are several. At times the Gospel writers make this explicit; at other times it is left up to the reader to connect the dots. For instance, in Matthew 2:15 we are told that after Joseph and Mary were warned in a dream to flee to Egypt, “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” This prophecy was first spoken to Abraham in Genesis 15, and fulfilled when Jacob and his family were brought to Egypt during the days of Joseph and lived there for 400 years. Through Moses, God called and led His people out of Egypt and eventually (after forty years in the wilderness) brought them into the promised land.

The Temptations Thwarted

As we come to the temptations of Christ in Matthew 4, we have been told that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness (as was Israel by the glory-cloud) where he fasted forty days and forty nights (reminiscent of Israel’s forty years in the wilderness). We are told in both accounts that Jesus was hungry. He was God incarnate, but he was also really human. If any of us miss a meal or two, we feel like we’re going to die. One can only imagine how Jesus must have felt after forty days without food.

At this moment of greatest weakness Satan comes and acknowledges who He is: “If [or perhaps better understood, since] you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.” Was doing this within Jesus’ miraculous power? Most likely¼ remember how He later fed thousands from five loaves and two fish. However, Jesus’ power was not to be used spuriously (to please the devil) or even to satisfy His own physical needs. His answer shows that He would succeed where Israel had failed.

He quotes from Deuteronomy 8:1–3, where Moses is addressing Israel about why the LORD had led them through the wilderness for forty years and fed them with manna from heaven. It was so they would be humbled and learn to trust and obey the LORD their God. In short, they needed to learn that God was their God. They could and should trust Him always to provide for and take care of them. We all must learn, as Jesus says, “You shall not (cannot) live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus responded to this and each temptation by quoting the lessons taught through the history of Old Testament Israel.

In the first temptation, Jesus exhibited unyielding faith in God’s care and providence. He endured by trusting in the sufficiency of God’s gracious care. He would master his hunger and the desire for physical food by subordinating them to His greater purpose of living to please God. We shouldn’t be surprised that this commitment is further challenged in the second temptation.

Satan took Jesus to the pinnacle (top) of the temple and challenged Him, to see if (or since) He really trusted in God to provide and care for Him—to prove it. “Throw Yourself down” and let God rescue You. He even quotes from Psalm 91 to support his challenge. Again, could Jesus have relied upon God’s promise of protection and angelic deliverance? Surely. Think of how calmly He would later sleep in the bow of the boat on the Sea of Galilee. But not here and not now.

He answers Satan directly: “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt (or test) the LORD your God.’” Satan was urging Jesus to presume upon God’s gracious protection and willingly endanger Himself. Satan was actually urging Jesus to exercise the opposite of faith by testing God. While Satan’s temptation was to find out if God would be true to His word, true faith believes and trusts God by doing what He says.

The verse Jesus references is Deuteronomy 6:16, which is actually an exhortation to God’s people Israel not to do what they had already done¼ when they were on their wilderness wandering. They frequently grew hungry or thirsty and complained against Moses and the LORD for bringing them out of Egypt. They wrongly tested God and doubted His care and provision. Jesus would not doubt or be presumptuous toward His Heavenly Father.

In the third temptation, we are told that Satan brings the Lord to an exceedingly high mountain and shows Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He then says to Christ, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Satan’s pride is beyond arrogance. Just think of it, the creature Satan, though powerful and once highly exalted, suggests that he is worthy to be worshiped by Christ and that he would generously give what was not his, to its rightful owner. In this temptation, Satan was presumably offering to relinquish his right of accusation against all of the sons of men. Remember, Satan’s name means “accuser.” In perhaps his most haughty rebellion, he is willing to forego his very design and nature to thwart Christ’s purpose and calling. In essence, this temptation was that of a shortcut. Instead of persisting on the course that would ultimately cost His life, Jesus was being tempted to accomplish (allegedly) the same objective in another way.

Christ’s answer hits the nail on the proverbial head. He says, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” Whereas Old Testament Israel would be enticed and would give in to worship God in forbidden ways and even engage in the outright idolatry of the nations around them, Christ Jesus would be faithful in all things. His heart, His loyalty, His devotion would be to Almighty God and Him only. Over and over, this lesson was taught and forgotten in Israel’s history. By the time of the exile, we are told on several points that the Israelites had become as bad or worse sinners than the nations who had lived there before them.

Christ comes and stands in direct contrast to their failures. Where they turned aside and were faithless, He stands strong and remains faithful. Satan was acting according to his nature, and, thankfully, Christ would act according to His. When Christ speaks His words of rebuke we are reminded of that authority again and again. He doesn’t ask. He doesn’t wish. He speaks with His rightful authority and tells Satan what to do. Astounding really¼.It would be this same authority by which in just a chapter He will contrast, “You have heard that it was said to those of old….But I say to you¼.” It is the same authority that we hear at the healing of the paralytic man: “¼but that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I say to you arise, take up your bed and go to your house.”

Satan’s response is clear. We’re told in verse 11 that “the devil left Him, and behold, the angels came and ministered to Him.” In Luke 4:13 there is a little more information. We’re told that after the temptations, “He departed from Him until an opportune time.” Satan’s opposition to Christ would continue and ultimately not be finished until he is cast into the lake of fire at the end of time.

For Our Benefit

And how are to think about all these things? Well, certainly we can rest securely in remembering that Christ, the Second Adam, remained faithful and true and did all that was required of him. The mystery of grace, or maybe we should say, the majesty of grace, is that His righteousness becomes ours. As the catechism says, “as if I had never committed nor had any sins, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart” (HC Q60).

But there is also another lesson for us to learn. Satan opposed and worked against Christ at every point. And something for us to remember is that if we are in Christ, Satan will oppose us at every point as well. There is a somewhat scary verse in Revelation 12 which describes Satan’s attitude and intent toward us. Listen to verse 17: “And the dragon was enraged with the woman, and he went to make war with the rest of her offspring, who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” The dragon is Satan. The woman is the Old Testament church (Israel). The offspring of the woman is the New Testament church (professing believers who hold fast to God’s Word and do what it says). Satan is at war with every true child of God. If you are a genuine believer, if you have true faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, you are in the devil’s cross-hairs! He will be after you.

Paul speaks of this in Ephesians 6:12ff: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” The exhortations that surround this reminder direct us to be watchful and ready—to put on the whole armor of God that when opposition comes against us, we will be able to stand. While we might prefer not to think in these terms, these are the words of Scripture, and if we don’t take the words of God seriously, we will not stand on the evil day.

In short, then, as we reflect on the temptations of Christ, we are encouraged to remember His perfect faithfulness¼ His perfect righteousness. That which is His becomes ours when we are engrafted into Him by true faith. But remember, this wonderful truth doesn’t mean that we don’t and won’t have to fight the good fight. No, it actually means just the opposite. As we share in Christ, we share in His threefold anointing. We join in the very battle that He commands. The Apostle Paul urges us to endure affliction as good soldiers of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 2:3). Let us not only join in singing, but living out the faith of our fathers embodied in this hymn:

Am I a Soldier of the Cross

1. Am I a soldier of the cross,
a follower of the Lamb,
and shall I fear to own his cause,
or blush to speak his name?

2. Must I be carried to the skies
on flowery beds of ease,
while others fought to win the prize,
and sailed through bloody seas?

3. Are there no foes for me to face?
Must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace,
to help me on to God?

4. Sure I must fight, if I would reign;
increase my courage, Lord.
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain,
supported by thy word.

5. Thy saints in all this glorious war
shall conquer though they die;
they see the triumph from afar,
by faith they bring it nigh.

6. When that illustrious day shall rise,
and all thine armies shine
in robes of victory through the skies,
the glory shall be thine.

(Isaac Watts, 1724)

            Rev. Randal Klynsma
Kansas City, MO
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